Navigation That Works (964 words)
By Amy Africa
Master site navigation—and get your right-hand column on the right track.
For most companies, 80 percent to 90 percent of the people who visit their sites never leave the page they came in on. Some of this happens because the user clicked the wrong button and subsequently landed on the wrong page, but most of it happens because the company didn't give customers what they were looking for the instant they arrived.
What do users look for on an entry page? One of the first things is a reason to stay. In the upper right-hand quadrant of your site—the "hot spot"—you need to give the customer something to focus on. Deals or special offers work best, but you also can use this area to promote a special product or service.
Next, the user looks for easy ways to get around. Whether or not you're actually selling a product, your entry page is the window of your store. To get someone to come in and look around, you've got to show them something they want to touch and feel.
How do you do this? By setting up solid navigation. Navigation accounts for at least 40 percent of your success online. Therefore, it's important you offer your customers several tiers of navigation: top navigation, bottom navigation and left-hand navigation—also called the "C."
The right-hand column can and should be used for selling, but it shouldn't be used as a directional tool for many reasons.
For example, if your screen size is not designed for the lowest common denominator, many of your customers may not be able to see the whole thing. Depending on the settings, browsers often cut off the right-hand side of the screen.
Ask yourself: If your user takes away only one message from your site, what do you want it to be? The top navigation, also called the action bar, tells the user what to do at your site and should have three to five "directionals" that tell customers exactly what you want them to do.
If you have a good deal of offline traffic, include a quick order section in the action bar. Other action bar items include a free catalog, Web specials, clearance or overstock, and new items. In most cases, you should stay away from non-selling items such as "about our company" in the action bar. Additionally, it's critical that your action bar items be visible without the viewer having to roll over the type. While rollovers make things look neat, they usually don't work—especially in the action bar.
Above your top navigation, you need an aggressive, benefits-oriented header. The purpose of the header is to set the tone of your site visually. In your header, you need to have your logo, a tagline about who you are and what you do, a memorable visual, and your toll-free phone number.
If you're an e-commerce site, you also need to highlight your perpetual cart, preferably at the right-hand side. The perpetual cart should, at the very least, list the number of items in the cart, the cart total and a shopping guarantee.
Bottom navigation is a regurgitation of the three to five items listed at the top as well as links to a site map, privacy statement, contact information and customer bill of rights.
Your contact information includes your logo, a five- to seven-word tagline about your business and what you do, address, phone and fax numbers, URL, e-mail address, and any applicable copyright information.
Not only does your bottom navigation reinforce your branding and help "close" the page, but it's especially important with sophisticated users as approximately a quarter of them work from the bottom up.
Your left-hand navigation tells the user what's in your "store" and how to get around. At the top of your left-hand bar, ask them to sign up for a free e-mail or newsletter.
Underneath, offer visitors a couple ways to search (pure text searches and drop-down boxes tend to work best), the highlights of your site (the three to four items you really want them to check out), your subject categories (users tend to prefer alphabetical listings) and your content. Content includes customer testimonials, "about our company" and so on.
At the bottom of your left-hand navigation, encourage your customers to refer a friend.
In the right-hand column of your entry page, give your customers lots of attention-getting sales pitches—little snippets of things that may be of interest to them.
Use self-banners at the top and bottom of your site. Self-banners work like regular banners, but instead of promoting other people's products and services, they promote yours. They're meant to look like mini-advertisements, so bright colors (red and yellow) and simple animation (three to four rotations) tend to work best.
After you've developed your navigation structure, work on your search function. Your search function should be intuitive and easy for the customer to use. Offer your customers several ways to find what they're looking for, and present them with alternatives to items not found. Your search also needs to handle misspellings, no-finds or "sounds like" words. These are critical, even with the most educated audiences.
One of the best things you can do is to set up a program to capture what your users are looking for—this data is incredibly valuable and could have a huge impact on your navigation.
And you should track your inside and outside searches—compare the words or phrases people are using to find you (at search engines and directories) versus the words/phrases they are using on your site.
AMY AFRICA is president of Creative Results. She has helped create and implement sales and marketing programs for manufacturing, service, wholesale, mail order and industrial companies worldwide. She can be reached at (802) 878-8944.